What you want vs. what readers want

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space battle

If this is what audiences want… why not give it to ’em?

In my present attempt to find any promotional opportunities I’ve yet to pursue, one of the things I find myself returning to often is whether my initial failure was in writing books based on the science fiction I loved and wanted to read, as opposed to writing the sci-fi my potential audience wants to read.

“Give ’em what they want” is a regular mantra in entertainment, and most of the best entertainers seem to be great at giving the audience what they demand.  Certainly movie blockbusters are based on this simple formula: If audiences want fast cars, sexy bodies, big explosions, loud rock music and incredibly simple plots, let’s stuff those things into a 2-hour movie and watch the greenbacks roll in.  So far (though this movie season has demonstrated that even this formula may be running thin), the method has been successful for them.  Other media have proven similarly successful at the formula, for instance, books based on familiar characters like Harry Potter, Jack Ryan, Bella Swan or Lisbeth Salander.

Many aspiring and independent writers have caught on to the formula, and have written series featuring recurring characters, because their readers want more stories with those characters.  I’ve done it myself with the Kestral series, and it has been one of my most successful sets of books.  But by the time I wrote the third book, and contemplated a fourth, I’d had to ask myself: Am I writing these stories because I want to… or because readers want me to?  And why is that difference significant?

The same has to be explored about formula and genre.  I like futurist fiction, based on real technological advancements and realistic extrapolations of where they will take us; and intelligent characters trying to deal with those extrapolations as they live their very real and understandable lives.  But is that what my potential audience really wants?  Do they want realistic robotics… or time-traveling liquid-metal terminators?  Do they want romantic glances… or skin and sex?  Do they want orbiting factories… or trans-light starships?  Do they want characters struggling in relate-able, real-world situations… or in melodramatic epics?  Do they want intelligent characters… or characters that punch and shoot their way through problems?

Since there are many more examples of the seriously successful stories featuring terminators, starships, epic melodrama, punching and shooting, it seems the answer to the above questions are pretty obvious.  So the next question must be: If what I want is to sell books, should I write those things?  Should I give the readers exactly what they want?  Or should I write what I want?

Most creators would like to think of themselves as artists, and as such, they demand the right to create what they want to create.  But the world is full of artists who create things that, it turns out, no one else wants.  Some of them will languish, undiscovered or unwanted, their gifts never entertaining the world.  Others will realize they must create more popular objects, to “pay the bills” and to hopefully introduce people to their more heartfelt creations.  And some creators simply give up the heartfelt stuff, and move exclusively to the popular creations that make them money.

And is this wrong?  I suppose you could argue that commercial work is not as fulfilling to the artist as art work.  On the other hand, there’s something to be said for creating something that pays for its effort; and the last time I checked, few debtors were willing to give artists a pass on their bills just because they’re artists.  (I know I don’t have any debtors like that.)  Ultimately, it’s up to the artist to decide if payment for commercial work is better than nothing for art work.

Personally, I’ve never considered myself an artist.  As I’ve said before, I am a craftsman: I apply a learned skill to creating entertaining stories, with the express purpose of selling them.  I want the money.  I’m trying to pay for retirement, when—or if—ever it may come.  And if my express purpose is to sell, it would seem my imperative should be to write stories in the formula that the public demands, whatever that formula is.

But so far, I haven’t done that.  I’ve written the science fiction that I believe is strong, relevant and still entertaining, especially to people whom I imagine are much like myself.  I’ve followed a formula that I appreciate, despite the fact that the majority of SF-loving people apparently want a different formula.  Everyone’s asking for Coke, and I’m trying to sell iced Herba Mate tea.

So maybe it really is time for me to give ’em Coke.

Can I do that?  Well, every time I’ve tried to put together something more popular in theme and elements, my internal compass has steered me away and into a different, more serious direction.  Part of my drive to write is based on my enthusiasm for the subject, and if I don’t have that enthusiasm, I suspect it might show in the final work.  But, put simply, I’ve never actually tried it yet.  And, I suppose, if I want to attract the attention of audiences, I must try to create a popular work for them.

I now have to weigh this against my original intention to forgo any writing projects until I can figure out how to promote the other books; the possibility that a successful book in a popular subject will somehow sell with my current (read: pathetic) promotional tools, versus the possibility that this book, too, will be largely undiscovered like the rest of my catalog. It’ll be a tough sell… especially to me.  Because, before any other consideration, I have to decide whether this is something I want.

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9 thoughts on “What you want vs. what readers want

  1. So far, I’ve seen comments on Facebook, along the lines of writers asserting that they must write what they want to write, or they can’t write at all. An understandable attitude, and one that I have espoused for years. But if no one is reading your writing… and if writing a commercial work can bring attention to you, and therefore, your uncommercial work… is it worth the effort of producing that commercial work?

    I guess the question is: Is creating a commercial work a prostitution of your talents, or an acceptable (and necessary) part of writing success?

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  2. In some ways, I believe chefs – and other artisans – face the same question. Does the chef design cuisine and hope to pull in appreciative customers, or do they find what customers like and then try to make it their own? Real world is a mix of both. Of course, the more famous the artisan the more they can do what they like because they already have loyal customers.

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    • True, Victor: For the chefs lucky enough to study under, say, Bobby Flay, then land a job in a well-promoted restaurant, they are mostly free to do what they want; the rest of them have to get their start in Hamburger Hamlet, proving themselves on basic menu dishes before they can move up to bigger and better things.

      The chef analogy is interesting, because I often equate being an independent SF writer with being a single grain of rice in a pot of stew: It’s damned hard to do anything that will make you stand out, even for more than a few seconds, in that pot. Word of mouth can do a lot to get you noticed, but in today’s world, it’s got to be a LOT of word of mouth… enough to transform you from a grain of rice to a piece of vegetable, a potato, or, Heaven help me, a piece of meat.

      Commercial work can be that extra spice that gets you attention, to get that word of mouth going. So sometimes, you grit your teeth and throw that cayenne in there.

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  3. I’m a spec fic writer who’s had some tiny, very minor success at getting short pieces in print, but I haven’t been able to get an agent interested in my first novel yet, so I’m thinking about ePUB a novelette using Smashmouth. Any thoughts?

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    • Only that you, too, will be a grain of rice in a very large pot of stew. Only LOTS AND LOTS of notice, positive recognition and glowing referrals will allow you to rise above the rest of the meats and vegetables. And if you don’t already have thousands to spend on promotion, or thousands of friends to actively support you, you’re in for a slow ride. Good luck.

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  4. Sherri

    Hi Steve. You have given us Coke in the past, with your Burn Notice pastiche: it was good, it was current, and you enjoyed writing it (I was there). You are a very talented writer and create interesting characters, but science fiction is a hard sell these days. Don’t give up!

    JA Konrath’s blog (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com) is featuring a series of guest posts by other authors talking about their self-publishing struggles and journeys, and is worth a look.

    I say try giving the readers what they think they want, with a Steve Jordan twist. Take your usual stories, and substitute a hot topic: a crude example is a spaceship containing a vampire race meets up with the Verdant exploration team. The worst scenario is you have low sales, but you may find a new enthusiasm, and an unexpected success.

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  5. Donn

    I propose – The Kestral Voyages: Zombiecane! Carolyn Kestral and crew land on a planet for restocking, when they discover that the planet has a small population of zombies. The uninfected population have been able to keep the zombies at bay, and quarantined on an offshore island. Suddenly a massive Hurricane sweeps over the island, picking up the zombie population and carrying them to the mainland where they reach out of the ‘zombiecane’ and start infecting the population. Kestral is one of those bitten, but she discovers that the Berserker virus she carries leaves her immune. Will Carolyn go on a planet wide zombie killing spree, or will the risky plan of infecting the population with Berserker quell the problem? Time is running out!

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